In the episode “Shaping Grief with Language” of On Being with Krista Tippet, Gregory Orr, an author and poet, reminisces how accidentally shooting and killing his brother when he was 12 years old affected him and his family. He also shares how this traumatic experience drove him to write lyric poems and discover the healing they give.
Read this if…
- You’ve been through a traumatic experience or know someone who has
- You want to know how to overcome your trauma
- You want to help someone heal from their trauma
Gregory Orr is a poet and author, publishing books like Poetry as Survival and A Primer for Poets and Readers of Poetry. On a hunting trip with his father when he was 12 years old, he accidentally shot and killed his brother. After this traumatic event, he turned to poetry, discovering how they can give courage in the face of trauma and offer healing in the process.
the distilld lessons (extended)
It’s never easy to deal with loss or trauma. At times, victims of trauma even resort to blaming themselves as a survival mechanism. Some don’t even talk about them as the mere thought of it can be painful. In this episode, author and poet Gregory Orr share his trauma. He also talks about a way to overcome the pain caused by traumatic experiences: lyric poems.
Here’s the distilld lessons inspired by the “Shaping Grief with Language” episode of the On Being with Krista Tippet podcast:
1. Meaning can be found through writing.
When we experience trauma, some people rationalize it as part of God’s plan. Others suggest to “rise above it.” Both ideas may not be enough for us to heal.
This is the case for Gregory who at 12 years old accidentally shot and killed his younger brother. This harrowing experience removed life’s meaning out of Gregory. He looked for ways to find meaning again. He tried social activism, but it was dangerous for him. He figured poetry was the safer route to take.
Gregory began to understand what Danish writer, Isak Dinsen, once said: "“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story, or a story can be told about it.” Through poetry, he found meaning in what happened to him and his family. He turned his traumatic experience into stories and poems for people to learn from.
Finding meaning after we experienced trauma is important in the recovery process. The first step is recognizing that we’ve been through trauma. The more we attempt to forget bad memories, the more they recur in our minds. This can lead to emotional disorders.
We can acknowledge trauma by writing about it. According to a study from the University of Iowa, to heal from trauma through writing, we don’t simply write, but understand and find meaning in the thoughts and feelings related to our trauma.
Gregory echoes this in an interview in 2005 saying that we need to have an active relationship with poetry. He said that we need to connect with what we write to be able to shape our trauma. When we consciously put our pain into words, we let it flow out of our system. By simply writing our story, we can slowly free ourselves from the grief overpowering us.
2. Lyric poetry can restabilize.
Gregory acknowledges that the world rotates with orders and disorders in it. Order, or repetitive acts, reassure us. Disorder, on the other hand, only brings chaos. Some disorders are from our traumas. When we experience them, we try to regain stability.
Gregory suggests that lyric poetry can help us regain stability. This is unlike religious or philosophical views which rationalize the traumatic experience as God’s plan or something that we can “rise above” from. Lyric poetry acknowledges trauma as a personal experience, giving shape to it, and honoring the person who has experienced it. In the 2005 interview, he noted that when we transform our confusion into words, we give coherence to our trauma. Understanding our trauma by writing a poem gives us a better sense of it, and then we can eventually move past it.
As lyric poetry is written or spoken in the first person, it allows the writer to focus on themselves. They can base the entire narration from their perspective. They can say “I had this experience,” whichcan be empowering as the trauma is told from the individual’s perspective and experience. In this way, trauma is not treated as a mere happenstance that they could immediately move on or grow from.
This method has a different purpose compared to self-blame, a tendency found on some trauma victims. According to a study published by the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, victims hold themselves responsible because they believe that they could have avoided the incident. In writing lyric poems, the victim can share what and how it happened, realizing in the process that they did not have any control over the violence done to them. They are not to blame for what happened to them.
3. Our writing can help others.
Gregory believes that poetry leads to healing, not only of the poet but of the people that would read it. Keeping the stories to ourselves would only make us “passive experiencers”. We will deprive the world of the story that they could hear and lessons that they could learn from us. In an article, he shared that a trauma victim, when finding meaning in life again, has to reconnect with the world. Narrating our stories in poems and sharing them is a way to heal ourselves and others.
Gregory also adopts Ralph Waldo Emerson’s belief of making our own ‘bibles.’ He encourages people to have their own collection of poems and literary pieces that they love and find most meaningful. Keeping them can help us work through our struggles. We can also share them with others who are in similar situations.
Reliving our traumas through conversation or writing is difficult. For some, the thought of the experience can feel like their progress has been undone. But part of moving forward is acknowledging our trauma. We can try to be courageous in facing our ordeals and finally talk or write about it. Then we can share it with others. The simple act of sharing our stories can give comfort and healing for ourselves and others.
For a shorter conversation, the distilld lessons summary are here.